Title: Critters (1986) Rated: PG-13 Direced by: Stephen Herek Written by: Stephen Herek and Dominic Muir Starring: Dee Wallace Stone as Helen Brown M. Emmet Walsh as Harv Billy Green Bush as Jay Brown Scott Grimes as Brad Brown Nadine Van Der Velde as April Brown Billy Zane as Steve Elliot Terrence Mann as Johnny Steel Lin Shaye as Sally
By Erin Tanner
Pre-screening memories: To protect myself from the merciless teasing I’m going to receive for admitting how deeply scarred I was by this film, I have to explain that I saw fewer movies growing up than most other kids my age. I grew up on a farm surrounded by nearly a thousand acres of woods, fields, and rivers; its remoteness created a near-idyllic backdrop for my formative years, but it also meant shitty television reception. The most harrowing things I’d seen on large or small screen before 1987 consisted of the ending of The Last Unicorn, the episode of Little House on the Prairie in which Mary goes blind, and an upsetting few seconds of hard-core pornography I glimpsed after I punched in the wrong coordinates on my grandmother’s Hubble-sized satellite dish.
Until Critters, I don’t think I was even aware of horror films at all. Even had I been familiar with most of the mid-1980s horror fare, its protagonists were usually horny teenagers driving around and necking in suburbia – not exactly characters that resonated with me in fifth grade.
But the farm-dwelling family in Critters was uncomfortably similar to my own, and indeed to that of most of my friends: wise, hardworking father; devoted, protective mother; a son who loves explosives; a daughter who’d like to make out in the hayloft with a young Billy Zane. I first saw it on VHS with four of my friends at a slumber party (there was no slumbering that night, I can tell you), the film’s parodical elements soaring well over our heads as we watched the ravenous Crites of Prison Asteroid Sector 17 Maximum Security Holding Facility make their diabolical way to Earth and rain furry hell down upon its inhabitants.
New Memories: What struck me first during my second viewing of Critters is that a lot of the acting is surprisingly good. Dee Wallace holds a special place in the hearts of most people my age after playing Elliott’s mother in E.T. and that kid from Who’s The Boss’s mother in Cujo. She’s the quintessential screen mom: blonde, attractive, always exuding a querulous, waffling charm at the film’s outset but proving by the end that she’s got a steely core of don’t-mess-with-my-family badassery.
If you’re in an ’80s movie and suddenly find yourself facing an attack from an unexpected quarter – government agents in spacesuits, a rabid St. Bernard, or red-eyed, pompadoured aliens – you want Dee Wallace at your back. Not only will she save you and kick a little tail while doing so, but she’ll probably make you hot cocoa afterward.
I had completely forgotten that the intergalactic bounty hunters were pseudo-Body-Snatchers-style shape-shifters, and had also forgotten that the bounty hunter Ug was played by Bob Geldof (just kidding—it’s Terrence Mann). I don’t remember how I felt about Ug/Johnny Steele/Geldof back in 1987, but I’m pretty sure that once I got an eyeful of that deliciously frosted mullet and Duran Duran-style duster jacket, I must have thought he was pretty rad.
Ultimately, I had assumed that the intervening decades between my first and second viewings of Critters would allow me to look back on the completely irrational fears it inspired and laugh. And while I did laugh at them (and at many points in the film – how can you not?), it turned out to be an erroneous assumption, because I spent most of the second viewing watching through my fingers like I did the first time.
Then again, fears are relative: If I had to choose today between facing a cellar full of slavering, poison-spine-shooting alien monsters and a living room full of sleep-deprived 11-year-old girls hopped up on warm Jolt Cola, Pixy Stix, and horror films, I’d grab Dee Wallace and a handful of firecrackers and take my chances with the Crites.
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Our featured guest: Gene Warren
Oscar-winning legend and legacy Gene Warren has spent a lifetime in the special effects industry. Under the tutlage of his Oscar-winning father, Gene picked up odd jobs while planning his path to be a stuntman. But something funny happened on the way to the explosion. From his early days of working on such touchstone series as I Dream of Jeannie, Gidget, and Land of the Lost (where he got to manipulate the dinosaurs!).Since then, he has moved on to add effect to everything from the miniscule-budgeted features (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, anyone?) to some of the biggest films in box office history (T2: Judgement Day). His company Fantasy II Film Effects was brought on to the Critters set after initial production had wrapped, but created perhaps one of the most memorable sequences of the film. Find out more about Gene’s handiwork in the podcast.
Thanks to Gene for your memories and sharing your Critters tales with Natsukashi.